Bisexual Phoneline rings the changes

Originally published in BCN 54: Mar 2002 with additional footnotes added in June 2020.

January [2002] saw the 15th anniversary of the start of the Edinburgh bisexual helpline (RIP). It almost saw the end of the London one.

After over 13 years of letting it use a phone line in his West London flat, Ian Saxton moved to somewhere in Berkshire. The new people were due to move into his old flat the following weekend.

While I am of course incredibly grateful to him for his help over past years – especially when the helpline operated by connecting two phone lines together with an expensive but appallingly unreliable box of tricks that he had to keep kicking – I would also really rather have liked to have had more than two days notice of the move. Oh well.

For almost seven years, we've been operating with a single line. Most times of the week, callers to the helpline get through to an answerphone. Its message tells them to go away… and call back when we're open. At those times, we use a service BT now call 'Smart Divert' — we were one of the first to use it in the UK! — which enables us to divert calls to the helpline's number to (almost) anywhere else in the world, from anywhere in the world.

So volunteers can do shifts anywhere that's convenient and callers don't know the difference. We pay the cost of diverting the call 'from' the flat to wherever the shift is being done plus a quarterly fee for the privilege of letting BT charge twice for one call, but that's less than the previous cost of having two lines. And as the line is only open at evenings and weekends, the diversion call costs are minimal.

Now, with Ian gone, we were in trouble. Especially as I had to remove the helpline's answerphone while he was still there, so for one week callers 'outside hours' only got a ringing tone.

Something had to be done… but what, exactly?

"Very lucky or very poor"

The last time I looked it up, every year around one in ten people moves. And nearly all of them have a phone. So you'd expect it to be easy to move and keep your phone number.

Of course, you'd be wrong. If you want to do so, you either have to be very lucky, or you end up very poor.

Technically, there is no reason whatsoever why we could not have the line into the flat disconnected (we absolutely did not want the new owners to be able to answer 'our' phone number, much less call out on it), add something like the otherwise evil Call Minder – BT's virtual answerphone service – and keep going with Smart Divert.

But they wouldn't do that. Even though BT would make even more money: not only would they get the Call Minder rental money, they'd save on having to provide a physical line. Oh no, the marketing division says we 'have' to have a physical line. It doesn't have to be where they send the bills (and it never has been) but it has to be somewhere. And not just anywhere.

It turns out there were only two ways to keep the helpline's number – which has appeared in innumerable places in the past fourteen years – either find somewhere within the area of its 020 8569 exchange to host it, or pay a fortune (about £500 per year on top of our current phone bill of about £250) for an 'Out of Exchange Number'.

Yet, incredibly, you can't find out where the exchanges' area actually is except by ringing up and asking on an address-by-address basis. ("12 London Road?" "Nope." "How about 34 High Street?" "Nope." etc etc etc) This makes finding a suitable location somewhat difficult, particularly as the time scale for installing a new line means we had about 48 hours to do so. If we had managed it, it'd have cost £120 for that new line.

The alternative was to have a new number, plus Caller Redirect which sounds more impressive than what it is: a message on the old number saying 'we've moved, try this number instead'. BT want £25 per quarter for that (more than the cost of a residential line with an answerphone doing exactly the same thing!) and will only do it for up to a year. That'll mean losing everyone – and there are people who do this – who make a note of the number then call it years later.

Then we get onto the choice of which new number to have. An ordinary boring 020 number will be that £120. Cheap for people to call, costs us £60 a quarter with Smart Divert. But where to site it? And what happens when they move?

The alternative is a 'non geographic' number – the 0800s, 0845s, 0870s etc. These can be redirected to any 'real' phoneline. (Mind you, if you want to change where you redirect them to, you can end up paying £25 a time, so don't even think about trying to do away with Smart Divert.)

As Arthur C Clarke predicted decades ago, the real cost of calls is now tiny and almost entirely independent of where they end up. The fact that you pay more for eg long distance calls than local ones is purely down to marketing and companies charging what the market will bear. So it's not surprising that various sorts of lines are available.

0800 numbers are free for callers (unless they're using most mobiles, but it turns out they make an exception for calls to at least some telephone helplines) because the receiving end ends up paying the cost of the call. Exactly how much depends on who sells you the number, but it can be up to 12p a minute. Most providers charge a 'rental' fee as well (£60 a quarter with BT, for example). As a helpline, we'd qualify for a special 0808 number — still free to call, but it'd cost us about 4p per minute to receive calls on top of the rental. No thanks.

0870 numbers are meant to cost people with BT lines the same as a 'national [non-local] call', but they're much more expensive with other providers. (There are people who think they should be redesignated as 'premium rate' lines.) Because they generate large piles of cash for the telecoms company, they're prepared to share it with you. BT, as ever, is the meanest, but finding someone who'll give you an 0870 number for free and hand over 1p per minute every time someone calls it is not very difficult.

It was tempting, but not for long. For example, BT residential customers on the 'BT Together'* scheme (which experience tells me they are put on whether they request it or not, and even if they explicitly say they don't want it) are charged 1p (rather than the usual 1.5p) per minute for evening local rate calls and 2p (rather than 4p) per minute for evening national calls. Except that 0870 numbers are still charged for at the 4p per minute rate. Not good.

There are also lines that cost the caller even more — like 0700 numbers and anything starting with 09 — which are so profitable that it's hard to move without suppliers begging you to have one, but that was never a realistic option.

In between 0800 and 0870 is 0845, which for most people costs the same as a local call, even with BT Together. As there's less money to go around, many suppliers (including BT of course) expect you to pay to receive calls on an 0845 number and with most of them, the difference between receiving an 0800 call and a 0845 one is pretty small. (It even turns out that some suppliers will charge you more for receiving off-peak 0845 calls than peak rate 0800 ones!) Fortunately for us, there are some suppliers who don't charge to receive 0845 numbers.

So we've gone for an 0845 number – 0845 450 1263 – from one of them. This costs us £120 per year in rental, but nothing per minute.** I'm not entirely sure if the supplier is going to make any money off us, but at the moment I don't care.

Sorting out the BT end was somewhat harder. All we wanted to do was set up Caller Redirect on the old number and have an existing line in someone else's flat be the one with Smart Divert. It should have been simple.

However, it does not help customers trying to get the best deal that trying to get a paper copy of the BT price list which will tell you definitively what they will sell you for how much is almost impossible, searching it on the BT website is hopeless, and the downloadable version is stored in a deliberately annoying format. Once you do manage to read it all, you discover that they've been letting you pay more than you needed to for the past decade (hmmm, could this possibly be why it is made so difficult to find out?***)

It is made worse by the fact that some of the people answering the relevant BT sales lines would have difficulty finding their bottom with a torch and a map. For example, one BT 'droid' got quite annoyed when insisting (wrongly) that the Caller Redirect was £25 per month, rather than per quarter. Another messed up a request for Ring Back Inhibit, the free stopping of callers to your number using the Ring Back When Free**** service, and marked us down as wanting the £4-odd per quarter Ring Back No Fee***** service instead. And I made the mistake of believing a third who insisted we couldn't have Smart Divert on a residential line (you can, but you can't have a special deal we didn't want bundling it with another service we don't want) so we ended up wasting time and effort converting a residential line to a business line… and back again.

But I think it's all sorted out. We've certainly been receiving calls on the new setup. And we're going to use all this as an opportunity to have a bit of a publicity campaign.

The end result is that the next year will cost us about twice what it otherwise would, and subsequent years will cost about 50% more. But at least we shouldn't have to go through this ever again. If the current host of the answerphone (me) moves, we'll be able to keep the same 0845 number and move where it ends up with a simple phone call.

What makes me optimistic about that is the way our 0845 providers proved more efficient than expected (they said it'd take a week to set up, but in fact took just two days) and no shifts were missed.

Their surprising speed did mean that callers one Friday got an old answerphone message that was only slightly more polite than 'leave a message, you bastard' but I was quite amused to see that two people actually did. One was from a London GLB project that a) really should have known the answer to the question they wanted answering, especially given how much they get in grants and b) really should have given me the job I applied for with them a year ago.***** * The other was from someone looking for a date that night for his bi girlfriend…

Of course, it didn't turn out quite that simple. The pile of paperwork you get from BT when you do something like this revealed, on close inspection, that we'd been paying for years for a 'fast repair' service we've never used. That was cancelled… and strangely, the line suffered a failure immediately afterwards. Odd that. Added to BT managing to change the PIN used to control Smart Divert without bothering to tell us, that meant that we did, in fact, miss a couple of shifts.

But given the effort involved to ensure the line's survival, I don't think that's too bad.

Ian Watters


* At the time, BT had an almost complete monopoly on residential landlines. Of course, they used this to exploit their customers. A number of firms had used cheap prices to buy phone capacity in bulk and started 'carrier pre-select' businesses – by, for example, dialling a short prefix before the number you actually wanted, you said 'I want this call to be billed by Swiftcall (or whoever) not BT' – that could save customers lots of money. This was especially true for international calls, but also applied to UK calls too.

BT Together was the response: in exchange for a small-ish fee on your BT bill, the actual cost of UK calls would be less. Customers were often put on it by default, so even if you used an alternative carrier, BT still got more money from you. Alternative carriers complained, OfCom sided with BT.

** Since this was written, the cost of getting an 0845 number has fallen – you can certainly get a free one and may well find someone willing to pay you to have one – because the cost of calling them has risen.

*** In 1998, BT were given a "final reminder" by their regulator over their failure to make "an accurate and comprehensible" price list easily available.

In June 2020, the BT "price guide" to residential customers is 217 pages long, up from 134 pages in October 2016. I strongly suspect it's not complete: there aren't nearly enough pages on products and services that aren't available to new customers but are doubtless still being charged to people who are still on them.

The full BT business price list is currently only available as fifty eight separate .zip files typically containing dozens of HTML files, plus eight further .zip files of notes and notices.

**** 'Ring back when free' allows callers who get an engaged tone to say 'automatically call me when the number I'm calling stops being engaged. It's great when calling a friend, but for a phoneline, it's a nightmare and means that if you're busy, the only callers you'll get are people able and prepared to use it.

Typically of BT, you had to actively stop people using it when calling your number.

***** Allowing you to use 'Ring back when free' without paying each time.

***** * I couldn't remember which one that was at first – I knew it wasn't Stonewall, because I wouldn't have called that Gay, Lesbian, & Bisexual at the time. The job reference means it was probably an HIV service in East London, then known as London East AIDS Network (LEAN) and now called Positive East.